As oil falls, Alberta eyes new riches in film, TV and music


[Mayor Naheed Nenshi, right, during the ground breaking ceremony at the Calgary Film Centre/CBC News]

As oil prices continue to plummet and Alberta records its second straight year of economic downturn, two brand new multi-million dollar film and music facilities set to open in Calgary have some folks optimistic about the city and the province’s future.

The $28.3-million Calgary Film Centre, located on 3.4 hectares in an industrial area in the southeast part of town, is scheduled to open in April after three years of construction. The facility includes three purpose-built sound stages spanning 50,000-sq.-feet, a movie equipment supplier and warehouse, office and multi-purpose space. The sound stages are expected to further bolster Alberta’s young but burgeoning film and television industry.

“We are a very unique jurisdiction that has opportunities abound,” said Luke Azevedo, film commissioner with Calgary Economic Development. “From the Calgary perspective, when you look at things like the National Music Centre and the film centre you start to see purposeful diversification and innovation that align with the [city’s] economic strategy.”

With the disappearance of more than 30,000 natural resources jobs in the oilpatch over the past year and crude trading at less than $30 US a barrel, new jobs — and lots of them — are needed.

According to Calgary Economic Development, the city’s creative industries currently employ more than 50,000 workers and generate hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity each year.

Calgary and the southern Alberta region account for 85 per cent of film and television projects shot in the province, the agency said. Over the past few years residents have hosted crews filming The Revenant, Interstellar, television series Fargo, Hell on Wheels, and Heartland, just to name a few.

“We’re trying to create an environment where there are both local and foreign productions running at a very successful level and being supported in a way that allows us to continue to grow and develop the industry,” Azevedo said.

If Calgary Economic Development is correct, for every $1 invested into the film centre, $6 should return. Thanks to our weak Canadian dollar and a reputation for highly skilled local production crews, film and television work in the country has boomed over the last couple of years and few see that trend reversing.

“We’re thriving,” said Tina Alford, ACTRA branch representative for Calgary. “Over the last two years we’ve seen an incredible number of productions [come here] and more productions means more work for Albertans.”

ACTRA is the national union for English-language performers in film, television, radio and digital media.

“Alberta, and the Calgary region in particular, have such a long history of film and television production,” Alford added. “People come here for our locations and our talented crews and performers. But for so long we’ve needed that one missing piece of the puzzle, the sound stage.”


Feather in Calgary’s cultural cap

In summer 2016, the new home of the National Music Centre (NMC) is also expected to open in Calgary’s East Village. Studio Bell, designed by architect Brad Cloepfil, will house a 300-seat performance space, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, 21 interactive exhibition galleries, classrooms, reception areas, shops and cafes. Ten years in the making and at a cost of about $191-million, it is hoped the complex will establish Calgary as the nation’s hub for music performance and preservation.

“The National Music Centre will bring not only national class but world class music to the city,” said Adam Fox, director of programs for the NMC. “We’ve got sound labs and studios and places where artists can collaborate and work with our music technology. It will be a real feather in Calgary’s cultural cap.”

“From a purely tourism-based perspective we are projecting that we will bring 150,000 visitors to Calgary a year,” he added. “We have the Junos this year and the National Music Centre played a big part in bringing them to Calgary. We know that the Junos in 2008 instigated about $11 million for the local economy and we certainly think we’ll see that here.”

Until the facilities open it is hard to say if they will provide a boost to the province’s NDP-led movement toward economic diversification and away from an over-reliance on oil and gas. In its first budget released in October, the NDP government unveiled an $11-million top-up to the Alberta Media Fund, a governmental program that supports music, film and TV productions, as well as book and magazine publishing.

Vancouver and Toronto, each with millions of square feet of production space, draw in billions annually in direct spending by film and television studios. Alberta, clocking in at under 100,000-sq.ft of studio space, has much to do to catch up. The province is well poised though, with its stunning and varied geographic offerings, skilled workers and new commitment to arts funding, to assume its place as part of Hollywood North.